Act 46: Time to press the pause button
The Vermont state motto, Freedom and Unity, is synonymous with how Vermont's rural towns and communities operate.
When it comes to schooling, we shine when we think locally and balance Freedom and Unity. Thousands of volunteers serve on school boards, adding value at virtually no cost to our system of education. They are a valuable piece of Vermont's social fabric that connects our schools and communities. Without the sense of community ownership and voice they ensure schools could become disconnected from community life, run by a distant bureaucracy.
The construct of the supervisory union is an example. Local school boards with the support of principals, staff and communities work collaboratively to do their best for their communities' children. Regionally these boards cooperate with their neighbors on common tasks, particularly those that can benefit from economies of scale. Over the last 10 years this cooperation has ramped up and districts have moved more tasks to the regional level. They have unified teacher contracts, special education services and busing. Many supervisory unions feel this cooperation has been productive and they are well on their way to forging cooperative agreements on anything else that could possibly result in cost savings.
The supervisory union model offers both freedom and unity: it gives community schools freedom to be distinct, flexible and responsive to local needs, while also allowing them to unite and to work together as equal players on a regional level.
In 2015, in an effort to respond to declining enrollment and increases in cost, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 46. Act 46 is a spanner in the works of how community schooling operates, and is now beginning to destroy the engine and grind it to a halt. This is because in crafting the law the folks in Montpelier discounted Freedom and Unity.
Districts where Act 46's so-called "preferred model" was an easy fit have rapidly voted and moved to a fully centralized system, in large part to take advantage of temporary tax incentives. Tax credits paid for by the more rural and more complicated districts around the state. It remains to be seen if the promise of this model and the loss of community representation will pay off with cost savings. Will the trade off be worth it? It will be several years before we know.
These districts are the "low hanging fruit" for Act 46. What remains are districts for whom the preferred model is not a match. They operate differently from their neighbors; differences in school and community size, scale and the complication of historical school choice will result in difficulty and disruption until Act 46 is adjusted to respond to the reality on the ground. The resounding no votes in Franklin and Orleans counties this past week is evidence of this.
The regional districts Act 46 encourages are not collaborative. They are not made up of equal players coming to the table with an equal voice. By force of law they are formed by a study committee with proportional representation. Act 46 discounts what has worked so well for so long in Vermont: neighbors' co-operating with neighbors. The Act 46 model is a power structure where bigger outvotes smaller and two towns can gang up on a third.
Several districts joined "706b study committees" (named after the subsection of the law that creates them) without seeing the rules in writing before they signed up. They assumed this "study" was a group of neighbors' working together in everyone's best interest, as they had in the past. What some have found is a nasty arena of power politics where they are silenced, intimidated and bullied, and, to add insult to injury, not allowed to withdraw — hardly fertile ground for collaboration. This does not bode well for their future, especially if the process is rammed through to a vote. In fact, as pressure is increased, Act 46 could force previously collaborative partners to be torn apart.
Supervisory unions should be allowed to pause and take a step back. Fortunately the no votes in Franklin and Orleans counties will allow those communities to do just that. In many cases, it is in the best interest to dissolve the 706b committee and return to the table as equal partners, who explore a variety of options before setting on a course of action to move forward. And for those places that have yet to form a 706b, the message is clear: Do not do so until you are certain on your path forward.
Act 46 allows for flexibility. But the law is only words on paper if districts are not allowed to explore all their options comprehensively before committing to a road forward. "All options" include community self studies, which engage the public and grapple locally with a variety of models. "All options" includes remaining an independent school district that cooperates with neighbors and makes contractual agreements to attain the goals of Act 46. "All options" includes smaller mergers of a more appropriate scale, and the development of collaboratives of smaller merged districts to form new, larger Supervisory Unions.
The law allows this flexibility — technically. However, it simultaneously heaps on pressure via tight timelines and fiscal stress to conform to the "preferred model."
The Vermont Legislature should examine Act 46 next session and consider how it will adjust the mechanisms of the law so districts are treated with equitable opportunity and not punished because they happen to be different. Vermonters should be asking all candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and the Legislature what changes they'd like to see made.
Legislators should consider: Extending Act 46 timelines to allow communities to examine all options; reducing the fiscal stress for communities where the preferred model is not a match; and allowing the completion of education quality reviews prior to mergers. This is data schools and communities need now to make wise decisions; removing the "hammer" included in the law, which says that the State Board of Education (a board that is appointed, not elected) will force merger of districts, ousting elected local school board members in the process. This should be replaced with a negotiated process between the state and local communities subject to the final approval of local voters.
Legislators need to reflect on our state motto, Freedom and Unity. We need a system that marshals the energy of Vermonters to address our education issues with the creativity that freedom inspires, and with the unity and collective wisdom we are known for.
Margaret MacLean, a Peacham resident, a Vermont Principal of the Year and a former member of the Vermont State Board of Education, is a member of the Steering Committee for Vermonters for Schools and Communities and a member of the local Peacham self study group www.peachamact46.org.
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